Start your story with an ending and work backward toward the beginning.
I sit tonight looking at an image that I haven’t thought about for decades. I had stopped into the library to return two books on growing roses and on my way out the door, I glanced at the bulletin board and saw the image. It stopped me dead in my tracks, literally. Leaning in to read the small note attached, one of those tear off a phone number kind of notes, I read that a person was trying to gather information on the history of the building in the photo. PLEASE TAKE A COPY and call or write if you can be of assistance, followed by a phone number and a post office box address. Curious I thought, turning away, I took two steps but then turned back and took a copy.
Now I sit here tonight looking at the image of the church as the memories come flooding back. Scenes of childhood mostly, and all in black and white, as though color and warmth and beauty did not exist. We know this cannot be true as this building was the scene of joyous occasions for families as they christened their babies, married off their children and enjoyed one day a week in clean pressed clothes, shaking hands with friends and enjoying church celebrations.
What I remember...where my memories begin....young, I was very young, tiny really. Always just my father and I, and it seemed like we lived at this church. We didn’t sleep here, I don’t mean that kind of living here, I mean ..if we were awake, we were here. My father was the grounds keeper, the grave digger, the one who waxed the hardwood pews and floors but really....and this is the important part...he maintained the big bells that called the countryside to services.
Vivid memories of him taking my shoulders, squaring me to him, to make sure I was looking in his face, paying attention, he would then say....”Patrick, These bells..they are OUR responsibility, no one else knows them or cares, but I DO and YOU WILL!” With that he would begin about the bells in the old days when his father taught him. How to get them to swing, which one to ring first, different bells for different occasions, the bells were the heart of this church.
And so it was that the time we spent at that church was a lonely time, my father and I doing all that needed doing but when it was time for folks to gather, we were in the bell tower, we did not talk or laugh or eat. We rang the bells. We called in the flock, my father called it. So young the first times he rang the bells, I cowered in a corner trying to make myself as small as I could but still cover my ears and head with my arms. The sound rang in my head for hours.
Yes, this is the church but in those days it was white, memories of the whole summer it would take for my father to scrape the boards and I would follow behind with the paint and brush. Maybe three times they painted that church as he grew up. There was pride in his father’s face when the pastor would call to us...”looks good...you must have a good helper there!”
Returning to his chair with his coffee cup, he again picks up the flyer. Studying the image more closely he thinks if he closes his eyes he might see himself, as he was most Sundays, looking out from the bell tower, watching folks with normal lives come to celebrate....walking, on horseback or in wagons, waving to each other and calling out. They never seemed to look up and he never called out! Yes he watched from when he needed to stand on a crate to see over the rail to when his father passed on leaving him to tend the bells. He was near a grown man then.
Now his memories become almost painful. He knew what was expected of him but he also knew he did not want this life for even ten minutes more. For days he labored over how to tell the new pastor that he was not going to stay on. Someone else must ring the bells. He in fact HATED the bells!
In dreams he saw his father...never speaking but scowling at him, disappointment plain on his face. And then the end of the month was near and he knew he must say this out loud. I WILL NOT RING THE BELLS!
He felt sick for two days, not eating and no sleep. Finally he knew the day had arrived. The pastor called to him from where he was trimming around the stones in the graveyard. “Patrick? A minute of your time?” And so he went, ready to say his awful truth, but before he could deny his duty, the duty his father has laid upon him, the pastor said, “Patrick, I have news, the congregation has voted to replace the bells with a new system of timed recordings, all automated, it will be lovely!” “What do you think?” He remembers clearly, Turing his face down to look at his shoe tops and knuckling tears from his eyes before looking up again, he remembers clearly, JOY, Maybe the first and only joy he had ever felt. Beyond that moment he remembers little....just a release from a burden he did not want and the decision had been made for him. Maybe his father would stay out of his dreams now. Maybe he could find a place where if he waved hello folks would wave back to him.
At this very moment he again finds tears in his eyes even after so much time has passed. He knows he has not buried buried his memories deep enough to be comfortable with people, he really just feels comfortable with his roses and his garden. He wonders if this photo of an old worn out church would end his feelings of isolation?
He could not decide if he wanted to wad up the photo to burn it with the trash but he slipped it into his rose book and thought maybe tomorrow he would feel different, maybe tomorrow he would remember some good memories about this church, from the looks of it, he had weathered much better than the church. So many years ago....closing his eyes his mind drifts back in time again and he hears the church bells calling the flock to service.